Working in a law office is a serious job which takes a lot of focus and brain power to get through the day. The job is sometimes stressful (or maybe a lot stressful) and the atmosphere of the office needs to be as calm as the sea, if possible. That has to do with people’s behavior and behavior is a choice. One of the first things you learn about working in a law office is the importance of confidentiality with regard to attorney-client relationship. That type of ethical behavior emphasized in the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 1.6(c), Confidentiality of Information states: (c) A lawyer shall make reasonable efforts to prevent the inadvertent or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to, information relating to the representation of a client.
In the office, this same kind of respect should be given in the coworker-to-coworker relationship—respecting each other to the point that you aim to keep the calmness in the office by minimizing problems. The need for orderliness and focus are essential every day because of the demands of the job. Why would anyone add insignificant stress, i.e., gossip, to the office environment?
What Rule 1.6(c) describes relates a lot to gossip and spreading rumors. Typical phrases that open a gossipy conversation are “I’ve got a secret,” “Get this . . .,” “Guess what? . . .,” “You would not believe what I just heard . . .,” etc. What is going on here is essentially disclosing private information about another person. Really, it is just hearsay. How do they know what was really done or said? How would you feel if they were talking about you? Are you willing to pass along the gossiper’s perception of what could be totally inaccurate and harmful information?
Remember, ethics is about your personal behavior. Behavior is a choice and you have a choice at all times. It is crucial to take the time to choose wisely. Getting involved in office gossip is really an ethical misstep that could hurt you in the long run. Gossip is something to be avoided if at all possible because the outcome is never good. Here is why:
- It makes you look like the bad guy if you pass it along.
- You appear to be very judgmental and manipulative.
- People hearing it are really thinking—what are you telling others about me?
Copying behavior is human nature. It is easy to follow the crowd. It does not even take any forethought. Gossip brings with it the temptation of acting on “I know something you do not know” to begin the game. The person spreading the gossip imagines themselves in a position of power but look again—it really is a position of weakness of character. Doesn’t it make you wonder if they have anything valuable to say at all? Remember, you have a choice. You can choose not to repeat a rumor. Be brave. Break the mold. You do not have to do anything just because everyone else does.
Gossip is really just meaningless chitchat that has become a large part of our culture. There are magazines and television shows that exist because of it. Notice that gossipy information is, for the most part, very insensitive. It does not help anyone or better their situation. When gossip spreads, it makes everyone uneasy. The person being gossiped about knows people have been talking about them because everyone treats them differently. What kind of good can come from this? Nothing good. Gossip is inappropriate in a work situation where everyone is busy and probably stressed anyway.
I have a friend who is so disciplined that she never gossips about anyone or anything. I have watched her to see how she does this and handles the situation. I admire her greatly and want to behave like that. It really takes a lot of self-discipline to develop a new habit of changing your typical reaction. A typical reaction to gossip is probably without much thought. It is a lazy reaction. You can change this behavior and respond in a different and better way, rather than do what you have always done. It will take a little work, but you can do it. There is a ripple effect to your behavior. The outcome is that everyone will be happier, less stressed, and more productive. It will be a better place to work. At some point, people will notice the change in the environment and the nitpicky bad behavior will stop.
So what do you do to get back on track and stop the gossip?
- When someone comes up to gossip, try to change the subject. Let them know that you are really busy and cannot talk right now. It takes two to play this game, and the best advice is to not be a willing partner. Sooner or later, the gossiper will stop telling you things. That could be such a relief. Remember, nobody is perfect. Everyone says or does ignorant things. They may not know they are being hurtful. It is not worth risking your reputation to pass along irrelevant information.
- You could defer the gossiper back to the person they are talking about. You could say, “_____ could clear up any question you might have. Why don’t you ask them?”
If the gossip is really important—meaning that it could affect the business and therefore your job—you will hear about it anyway. If you hear something that could possibly threaten your job, it would be a good idea to ask your boss about it.
Just like confidentiality is one of the keys to legal practice, confidentiality should be a key to your personal work ethic. After all, don’t you really want a positive work environment? You can have it with a conscious change in one little habit of behavior.
Allison Streepey, B.A., CRS, PLS, is the Business Administrator for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Office of Educational Development. She has over 15 years’ experience in pre- and post-award research grants administration and in serving as the Senior Grants Administrator for the UAMS Office of Research and Sponsored Programs. She also served as an IRB Administrator in the Institutional Review Board office for the protection of human subjects in research. Her current legal experience involves federal and state grants and contracts, employment law, and federal research grants administration. Allison is thrilled to be a member of the NALS Editorial Board and enjoys reading all the articles and writing.